Is a Negative Online Review Considered Defamation?

Posted 16th April 2021

Written by Chris Newton

Stephen Fallon Solicitor Newtons Knaresborough

A review, a post or a comment can circulate quickly. As much as fantastic posts, reviews and comments on social media can be great for businesses, a poor review or a negative post or comment can be hugely damaging for a business. But is a bad review defamation or simply an annoyance?

 

Is a Bad Review Defamation?

First, we need to discuss the nature of defamation. Whilst there is no actual definition of what defamation is, it is widely accepted to refer to untrue statements that lower the complainant’s estimation of right-thinking members of society generally.

A statement is not defamatory unless its publication has caused or is likely to cause serious harm to the complainant’s reputation. Harm to a business’s reputation is not serious harm unless it has caused or is likely to cause the business serious financial loss.

In terms of an individual, it is relatively easy to imagine the kind of statement that would likely be held as defamatory. However, it is less straightforward with businesses, particularly when it comes to online review defamation.

 

Online Review Defamation – Points to Consider

 

Let’s take, for example, somebody who eats at a small local restaurant, and unfortunately, the steak isn’t quite medium rare, and the service wasn’t quite as fast as the drive-thru around the corner. Fed up, hungry and a few £’s lighter, the customer shares their experience on social media or a review platform.

The restaurant owner is up in arms at the customer’s comments. The steak was cooked perfectly and the service that night was fantastic! The customer’s comments could have a serious impact upon the business of the small restaurant therefore, understandably, the owner wants them removed/taken down quickly.

But was the customer’s online review defamation? Or was it just an honest appraisal? It is therefore vital to look at exactly what was said.

The quality of food or standard of service is an opinion, isn’t it? As such, how do you demonstrate that the statement was untrue? Was the customer even real? Could it have been made by someone with a clear intent to cause harm to the business? If the customer wasn’t real, how do you prove it?

Finally, how do you demonstrate that financial loss has been caused as a direct result of the statement? Could the last Saturday night in the restaurant have been really quiet due to the final of Strictly Come Dancing? Proving whether or not the cause was online review defamation is no mean feat.

We should also consider the customer who is fed up, hungry and a few £’s lighter had an innocent rant on social media, or who left an honest but negative review and who may now be faced with a defamation claim being issued against them. Should they be prevented from airing dissatisfaction in terms of service from a business? Is the bad review defamation or a fair review of what they considered subpar service?

 

Defamatory Google Reviews

 

When they’re positive, Google Reviews can be a major boon to a business as they can help you interact with customers and increase your footfall. Even negative reviews have their benefits if they’re honest and reasonable – they can help you see areas your business can improve.

It’s no secret that it is the most popular search engine, but how does Google know if a bad review is defamation?

Google has an automatic spam filter that aims to detect reviews that are not authentic, relevant and useful, but it is not perfect and defamation in a Google review may not get picked up. If a business receives a defamatory Google review, they can ask Google to take down reviews that it believes are defamatory, but it will only do so if the review breaks one of Google’s policies. They will not take down a review just because a business doesn’t like it or if there is a debate about facts (as they have no way of discerning who is in the right).

 

As we move towards an ever increasing ‘online’ world, we should of course embrace social media and review platforms, but at the same time be mindful of the perils of the same.

Defamation is a technical area of law, and the Newtons dispute resolution team are experts in dealing with such matters. Not every bad review is defamation but the ones that are can be very damaging. If you require any advice and assistance, please contact the team.